The Prime Minister’s New Bill

With apologies to Hans Christian Andersen and thanks to JTA, both of whom deserve the credit for this more than I.

Once there lived a Prime Minister, and she loved to wear clothes made of strong international relations. One day a Swindler came to the Prime Minister and he promised that he could equip her with clothes of the best and strongest international relations. The Swindler claimed that all the people of the realm loved the new material he was producing, and the Prime Minister was delighted. She appointed a man to be in charge of ensuring that the Swindler did the job he had promised, and then she got back to her important work.

Her man soon reported to her a most alarming fact: the Swindler wasn’t at his loom. He was just sitting in the pub, sipping distinctly-English beers and seemingly making no progress on the bill at all. The Prime Minister was alarmed, but didn’t say anything: after all, she would soon be on the way to wearing clothes of the most beautiful and strong international relations. Besides, she’d been promised that all the people loved the new material that the Swindler worked with. So she appointed a second man and asked him to keep an eye on the Swindler, instead.

The second man checked in on the Swindler, and then reported that the Swindler still wasn’t weaving. The Prime Minister challenged the Swindler, but he claimed that he’d had car trouble while returning from France, where he’d been acquiring supplies, and would be getting back to his work soon. Clearly the second man had been too hasty in his judgement, so the Prime Minister appointed a third, who’d surely be less-judgemental as he saw the job through.

The third man checked on the Swindler, and discovered that while he was at his loom, he didn’t seem to be working at all and the loom stood bare. “The Prime Minister is concerned,” said the man “That no progress has been made whatsoever on her new clothes of strong international relations.”

“But progress has been made,” said the Swindler, “Can’t you see? I promised the Prime Minister that I would weave, and weave means weave! I am making clothes of the finest international relations; they’re made out of a Bill so lightweight and flimsy that it’s almost invisible. Only the cleverest of people can see it.” The Swindler reached into the loom and scooped his arm under the place where the fabric should appear, and raised it to show the third man.

“Ah yes,” said the third man, “I can see it.” But the third man could not see the Prime Minister’s new strong international relations.

Soon the clothes were ready, and the Swindler brought them to the Prime Minister to try on. She seemed confused at first: where were the clothes? But then the swindler explained: “These clothes are made of the finest international relations, in the fashion that is most-popular with the people,” he said. “Only the most-intelligent of people can see how beautiful, how elegant, how economically-viable they are!”

“Oh!” said the Prime Minister, and examined her new clothes. “I… um… see you’ve put a lot of work into stitching the hem: these borders will surely be well-protected.”

The Prime Minister tried on her new clothes, and observed that they were so light that she might as well have been wearing nothing at all. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to be seen wearing these new clothes because they made her feel naked and vulnerable, but she didn’t want people to think that she was stupid by confessing that she couldn’t see them. She resolved to show them to everybody she could find.

First she went to her Cabinet. “Do you like my beautiful new clothes?” she asked, “They’re made of strong international relations, and only the cleverest of people can see them!” And her Cabinet all nodded and said that yes, of course they liked them. But they could not see the beautiful new clothes. (It’s worth noting that half a dozen of them walked out at this point without saying a word.)

The Prime Minister went to see the Old People, and she said, “Do you like my beautiful new clothes? They’re made of strong international relations, but only clever people can see them.”

“Yes, they’re wonderful,” said the Old People. But they could not see the strong international relations.

The Prime Minister went to talk to the Emperor of America, and she said “Do you like my beautiful new clothes? They’re made of strong international relations, but only clever people can see them.”

The Emperor of America looked the Prime Minister up and down, and made a strange face that made the Prime Minister suspect that the Emperor didn’t even WANT to see the strong international relations, but he said: “Yes, they’re great clothes. The best clothes.” But the Emperor of America could not see the strong international relations.

The Prime Minister went to talk to the Racists, and she said “Do you like my beautiful new clothes? They’re made of strong international relations, but only clever people can see them.”

“Yes, they’re fantastic,” said the Racists, and they genuinely meant it, because they’d already persuaded themselves that because the new clothes had been made in their own country they were inherently superior to any clothes that might have been made by foreigners. But still, they had to admit, they couldn’t actually see any strong international relations nor did they want to.

The Prime Minister went to talk to the Under Thirties, and she said “Do you like my beautiful new clothes? They’re made of strong international relations, but only clever people can see them.”

The Under Thirties stared at Prime Minister, and then looked at each other, and then looked back at the Prime Minister. “You’re not WEARING any clothes,” they said. And the Prime Minister knew that they were right.

When I watched @Sir_RidleyScott’s #BrainDead (@BrainDeadCBS) in 2016, it was a dark comedy about alien brain parasites driving US political extremism.

When I watched it in 2018 it was a plausible explanation.

When I watch it in 2020 I’m worried it will be a documentary.

How Few Votes Can Win a UK General Election?

Here’s a thought: what’s the minimum number of votes your party would need to attract in order to be able to secure a majority of seats in the House of Commons and form a government? Let’s try to work it out.

The 2017 general election reportedly enjoyed a 68.8% turnout. If we assume for simplicity’s sake that each constituency had the same turnout and that votes for candidates other than yours are equally-divided amongst your opposition, that means that the number of votes you need to attract in a given constituency is:

68.8% × the size of its electorate ÷ the number of candidates (rounded up)

For example, if there was a constituency of 1,000 people, 688 (68.8%) would have voted. If there were 3 candidates in that constituency you’d need 688 ÷ 3 = 229⅓, which rounds up to 230 (because you need the plurality of the ballots) to vote for your candidate in order to secure the seat. If there are only 2, you need 345 of them.

Breakdown of a 1,000-person electorate in which 688 vote, of which 345 vote for your candidate.
It would later turn out that Barry and Linda Johnson of 14 West Street had both indented to vote for the other candidate but got confused and voted for your candidate instead. In response, 89% of the nation blame the pair of them for throwing the election.

The minimum number of votes you’d need would therefore be this number for each of the smallest 326 constituencies (326 is the fewest number of seats you can hold in the 650-seat House of Commons and guarantee a strict majority; in reality, a minority government can sometimes form a government but let’s not get into that right now). Constituencies vary significantly in size, from only 21,769 registered voters in Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles of Scotland, an SNP/Labour marginal) to 110,697 in the Isle of Wight (which flip-flops between the Conservatives and the Liberals), but each is awarded exactly one seat, so if we’re talking about the minimum number of votes you need we can take the smallest 326.

Map showing the 326 UK constituencies with the smallest electorate size
Win these constituencies and no others and you control the Commons, even though they’ve tiny populations. In other news, I think this is how we end up with a SNP/Plaid coalition government.

By my calculation, with a voter turnout of 68.8% and assuming two parties field candidates, one can win a general election with only 7,375,016 votes; that’s 15.76% of the electorate (or 11.23% of the total population). That’s right: you could win a general election with the support of a little over 1 in 10 of the population, so long as it’s the right 1 in 10.

Part of my spreadsheet showing how I calculated this
I used a spreadsheet and everything; that’s how you know you can trust me. And you can download it, below, and try it for yourself.

I’ll leave you to decide how you feel about that. In the meantime, here’s my working (and you can tweak the turnout and number-of-parties fields to see how that affects things). My data comes from the following Wikipedia/Wikidata sources: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] mostly because the Office of National Statistics’ search engine is terrible.

What Cyber-War Will Look Like

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When prompted to think about the way hackers will shape the future of great power war, we are wont to imagine grand catastrophes: F-35s grounded by onboard computer failures, Aegis BMD systems failing to launch seconds before Chinese missiles arrive, looks of shock at Space Command as American surveillance satellites start careening towards the Earth–stuff like that. This is the sort of thing that fills the opening chapters of Peter Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. [1] The catastrophes I always imagine, however, are a bit different than this. The hacking campaigns I envision would be low-key, localized, and fairly low-tech. A cyber-ops campaign does not need to disable key weapon systems to devastate the other side’s war effort. It will be enough to increase the fear and friction enemy leaders face to tip the balance of victory and defeat. Singer and company are not wrong to draw inspiration from technological change; nor are they wrong to attempt to imagine operations with few historical precedents. But that isn’t my style. When asked to ponder the shape of cyber-war, my impulse is to look first at the kind of thing hackers are doing today and ask how these tactics might be applied in a time of war.

Mark Cancian thinks like I do.

In a report Cancian wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how great powers adapt to tactical and strategic surprise, Cancian sketched out twelve “vignettes” of potential technological or strategic shocks to make his abstract points a bit more concrete. Here is how Cancian imagines an “asymmetric cyber-attack” launched by the PRC against the United States Military:

 The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop.  Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while.

The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese “Assassin’s Mace”-a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military-turned out to be focused on the wrong thing.

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet’ s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls’ cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency’s initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine’s account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron’s Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other’s throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.

Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.

There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared “an operational pause,” directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.

Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation.[2]

How is that for a cyber-attack?

Where does my council tax go?

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Where does my council tax go - a Freedom of Information request to South Somerset District Council (WhatDoTheyKnow)
I have recently recieved my council tax bill and would like to know excatly where my money goes. On the minimal breakdown that is stated on the letter, it states i pay three different council departments i also contribute towards adult social care, may i state i do not use this service and i have no one in social care so why should i pay it. I also have no full time police force, fire service or ambulance service why am i paying for these. I have not used these services therefore why am i not refunded for the services that i do not use. I want to know the excact breakdown of where the £936 pound i give to south somerset district council go. As i feel i am being ripped of and paying for services i do not use. Yours faithfully, james

The following Freedom of Information request was published on What Do They Know?, and it’s glorious:

Dear South Somerset District Council,

I have recently recieved my council tax bill and would like to know excatly where my money goes.

On the minimal breakdown that is stated on the letter, it states i pay three different council departments i also contribute towards adult social care, may i state i do not use this service and i have no one in social care so why should i pay it. I also have no full time police force, fire service or ambulance service why am i paying for these. I have not used these services therefore why am i not refunded for the services that i do not use.

I want to know the excact breakdown of where the £936 pound i give to south somerset district council go. As i feel i am being ripped of and paying for services i do not use.

Yours faithfully,

james


Dear James,

Your question is quite broad and more than a little mystifying. To the extent that it’s a Freedom of Information Request, I can tell you that a more thorough breakdown of South Somerset District Council’s (SSDC’s) finances for financial years 2012/13 – 2015/16 are available on this page of our website: https://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/about-us/finance

I recommend looking at the Summary of Accounts documents—there is a helpful pie-chart in each. Our Statement and Summary of Accounts for the 2016/17 financial year will be published after the 27th of July.

Please note that SSDC collects Council Tax on behalf of other local authorities, including Somerset County Council and Avon and Somerset Police (these are, I think, the ‘departments’ to which you refer). These authorities will have published similar statements of accounts.

The rest of your questions touch on deeper issues about the philosophy of public service and the extent to which these services should be free at the point of use. The Freedom of Information Act is not the appropriate platform to debate these issues. But I offer the following parable:

In ancient Rome Marcus Crassus became very wealthy by creating the first fire brigade. But his brigade was not publicly funded, nor did they sell fire insurance. When the brigade arrived at a burning building, Crassus would negotiate with the owner a price he considered reasonable to put out the fire. His brigade would let the building burn until a price was agreed. If the owner failed to agree, they would let it burn to the ground.

Whilst you don’t need adult social care now, you may one day. And the people who DO need it now aren’t in a position to agree a reasonable price for it.

Perhaps if you are interested in researching public service, you could use a public library (which is free at the point of use).

Kind regards,
Zac

Legal Services
South Somerset District Council

The Pig War of 1859

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The Pig War of 1859 (Historic UK)
Undeniably one of the most obscure and unusual 'wars' in history, this is the story of how the killing of an escaped pig almost caused a war between the United States and Britain.

‘The Pig War’ is perhaps one of the most obscure and unusual wars in history. The story begins back in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty was signed between the US and Britain. The treaty aimed to put to rest a long standing border dispute between the US and British North America (later to be Canada), specifically relating to the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastline.

The Oregon Treaty stated that the US / British American border be drawn at the 49th parallel, a division which remains to this day. Although this all sounds rather straightforward, the situation because slightly more complicated when it came to a set of islands situated to the south-west of Vancouver. Around this region the treaty stated that the border be through ‘the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.’ As you can see from the map below, simply drawing a line through the middle of the channel was always going to be difficult due to the awkward positioning of the islands.

An early map of San Juan

London’s Transport Chief Can’t Do Early Meetings As She Uses Southern Rail

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London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport avoids early morning meetings because she relies on Southern Rail to get into the office.

Val Shawcross’ office was trying to set up a meeting and in an email wrote: “Val actually is a morning person but has to use Southern trains to get in to the office so we try not to have too many early starts.”

The First Time I Met Americans

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HANOI, Vietnam — I first visited the United States in the summer of 1998, when I was invited to attend a literary conference in Montana with four other Vietnamese writers. We flew from Hanoi to Taiwan to Los Angeles. As we crossed the Pacific Ocean, passing through many time zones, I buried myself in sleep and woke up only when the plane hit the tarmac. At passport control, we found ourselves in a huge hall, and I was abruptly taken aback: There were Americans all around us, lots of them! I will never forget that strange feeling. It was bizarre, unbelievable, surreal, that I, a veteran of the Vietnamese People’s Army, was in the United States, surrounded by Americans.

The first time I ever saw Americans was when I was 12 years old. It wasn’t actually blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans that I was seeing up close. The Americans I saw that day were F-4 Phantom bombers, brutally attacking small towns on the shore of Ha Long Bay. It was Aug. 5, 1964, and I was at the beach on a school trip, swimming with my classmates. That was right after the Tonkin Gulf incident, the day President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his decision to expand the war throughout Vietnam…

Welcome To Nauru, The Most Corrupt Country You’ve Never Heard Of

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Nestled in a cluster of islands in the central Pacific Ocean is Nauru, a small country with a totally insane story.

Nauru

In 1980, the island nation was considered the wealthiest nation on the planet; in 2017, BusinessTech listed it as one of the five poorest countries in the world.

This is a story of a country that journeyed from rags to riches and back to rags. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when a nation exploits its natural resources at the expense of people’s lives…

Tory Momentum clone Activate at war as ‘hackers’ back Jacob Rees-Mogg for PM | Politics | The Guardian

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It’s the grassroots political movement whose launch nobody could envy. Now, social media channels for Activate, the centre-right attempt to emulate Momentum’s youth appeal, appear to be at war with each other over backing for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be Britain’s next prime minister.

On Twitter, the @ActivateBritain account has tweeted a string of anti-Theresa May images and issued an “official statement” endorsing the MP for North East Somerset as the next Conservative leader…

The Man Who Knew Too Much

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His nuclear research helped a judge determine that former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko had been assassinated – likely on Putin’s orders. Just months after the verdict, the scientist himself was found stabbed to death with two knives. Police deemed it a suicide, but US intelligence officials suspect it was murder…

Theresa May to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and security changes despite not winning majority

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Theresa May looks set to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and plans to fundamentally change how technology works despite not having won a majority.

In the speech in which she committed to keep governing despite calls to stand down, the prime minister made reference to extending powers for the security services. Those powers – which include regulation of the internet and forcing internet companies to let spies read everyone’s private communications – were a key part of the Conservative campaign, which failed to score a majority in the House of Commons.

In the speech, given in Downing Street after losing her majority but still looking to form a government, she laid out a series of plans that she hopes to carry out at what she called a “critical time for our country”…

Tory MP ‘told schoolgirl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence’ | The Independent

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James Heappey MP

A Tory MP told a girl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence if a second referendum was triggered.

James Heappey’s outburst came as he addressed sixth-formers at the £12,000-a-year Millfield School in Somerset…